Asia Pacific / Politics | ANALYSIS

High-stakes denuclearization talks in balance as U.S. announces top diplomat's visit to North Korea

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The White House’s high-stakes talks with Pyongyang over its nuclear program have entered a crucial phase, with the negotiations likely to hinge on a scheduled meeting Sunday between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The U.S. State Department announced Tuesday that Pompeo and Kim would meet over the weekend as part of a whirlwind three-day trip to the region by the secretary of state.

The top American diplomat is seeking a breakthrough in the stalled talks and will be looking to lay the groundwork for a second summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump.

But Tuesday’s rare announcement that Pompeo would actually meet with the young North Korean dictator also came just hours after Pyongyang threw cold water on the idea that a declaration ending the Korean War could be used as a bargaining chip in denuclearization talks. Instead, it hinted that eased sanctions might be enough to inject fresh momentum into the deadlocked negotiations.

The planned trip to the North Korean capital will be Pompeo’s fourth and will be bookended by meetings in Beijing and with regional allies, including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Taro Kono on Saturday and South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha later Sunday. Pompeo is scheduled to travel to China for a meeting with top officials in Beijing on Monday.

Pompeo did not meet Kim on his last visit to Pyongyang in July, when the North Korean leader instead was photographed touring a potato farm. Another visit by Pompeo was announced in August but was abruptly canceled after Trump publicly acknowledged for the first time that his effort to get Pyongyang to denuclearize had stalled since his landmark June summit with Kim in Singapore.

In announcing the latest trip, the State Department expressed confidence that the talks remained on track.

“I think it shows forward progress and momentum that the secretary is making his fourth trip back in less than a year,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a televised news briefing.

“Everyone recognizes that we have a ways to go and a lot of work that is left to be done,” she said.

“But obviously these conversations are going in the right direction and we feel confident enough to hop on a plane to head there to continue the conversations.”

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said in a commentary Tuesday that declaring the end of the 1950-53 Korean War “can never be a bargaining chip” for North Korea’s denuclearization, and said the country “will not particularly hope for it” if the United States does not want to end the war, which was halted in an armistice and not a formal peace treaty.

The commentary also claimed that Pyongyang had taken significant measures to end “hostile relations” between the two countries but said the U.S. is “trying to subdue” it through crushing sanctions, a not-so-subtle call for Washington to lift the measures if it hopes to kick-start the talks.

This echoed a speech by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho before the United Nations General Assembly on Saturday in which he described a “deadlock” in the denuclearization talks and that Washington was relying on “coercive methods that are lethal to trust-building.”

Ri’s speech — in which he mentioned the word “trust” 19 times and highlighted improving ties with South Korea — was believed to be part of a multipronged push to pressure other members of the U.N. Security Council to get the U.S. to relent on sanctions relief, said Joshua Pollack, editor of the U.S.-based Nonproliferation Review and a leading expert on nuclear and missile proliferation.

“Ri’s contrast of the progress with Seoul and the deadlock with Washington is a way of portraying the United States as the recalcitrant partner,” Pollack said. “It reflects the broader strategy of trying to enlist support in Beijing and Moscow in particular for an end to sanctions.”

Pyongyang could also be taking aim at internal disagreements within the White House over how to proceed with the nuclear negotiations. Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton and others have reportedly argued against a second Trump-Kim summit.

“By invoking ‘trust,’ Ri is obviously having a shot at Pompeo, most likely in the hope that it will appeal to Trump’s instincts to move boldly to ensure a second summit by dialing back sanctions,” said Andrew O’Neil, an expert on North Korea and a professor at Griffith University in Australia. “If this is Ri’s motive, then it’s extraordinary testimony to how confident Pyongyang is in manipulating Trump against hard-liners in his own administration.”

Trump has said a second summit will happen soon, but the U.S. has denied that it is considering easing sanctions.

“Sanctions remain in full effect — not just the United States sanctions,” Nauert said. “U.N. Security Council resolutions and the other countries that fully backed those Security Council resolutions, all of that remains in effect. We are not easing the pressure in that regard at all.”

Washington has resisted calls from Beijing and Moscow to relax the sanctions in the wake of the detente between the North and the U.S. and “goodwill measures” taken by Pyongyang, including a halt to missile and atomic tests this year, as well as the dismantling of its sole nuclear testing facility.

The North Korean leader has also served up a flurry of tantalizing denuclearization proposals that he has said are contingent on “corresponding measures” by the U.S. Those proposals include an agreement by Pyongyang to “permanently” decommission a key missile facility under the watch of “experts from relevant countries” and the possibility of shuttering its Nyongbyon nuclear complex in a deal with the U.S.

Mark Fitzpatrick, a veteran arms control expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington, said that “trust-building” and action-for action remarks were “little new in terms of long-standing North Korea policy,” but that by voicing them now Pyongyang is sending “a message to Trump that he will have to change his position on sanctions if he wants denuclearization.”

“The North Koreans probably think they can get something more from Trump in a second summit, so they are laying out their wish list,” Fitzpatrick added.

Perhaps more immediately, the North could be fishing for an end of war declaration — despite its rhetoric to the contrary.

Fitzpatrick said that such a declaration had now become Pyongyang’s “top priority with the U.S. … with sanctions lifting close behind.” As for “corresponding measures,” he said the North Koreans were pointing to an “obvious solution” to the sequencing problem, in which both sides to date have said the other must move first.

The U.S. has demanded that the North must give up its nuclear arsenal before sanctions come off, a stance the State Department reiterated Tuesday.

After making huge strides toward his goal of building a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States, Kim in April said he was shifting his focus to the economy. But any hopes of rebuilding it hinge on eliminating or alleviating the suffocating impact of U.N. and unilateral sanctions.

But North Korea’s long history of back-pedalling and double-dealing has left many experts and officials in the U.S. and elsewhere skeptical that Kim may be willing to take steps toward reining in his nuclear program.

“Kim Jong Un, Ri, and other senior figures genuinely believe the conditions for Pyongyang getting what it wants — i.e. de facto recognition of nuclear status, de jure recognition of legitimacy in peace treaty, lowering of sanctions pressure — have never been better,” said Griffith University’s O’Neil.

“The evident confidence — swagger even — in the demeanor of North Korean officials indicates they feel they’re in a good position to fracture the international sanctions coalition and gain formal U.S. recognition of the DPRK, for many decades the holy grail of North Korean foreign policy,” he added, using the acronym for the North’s formal name.

Still, Fitzpatrick said that it is “important to listen to what the North Koreans actually say, and to understand that their emphasis has shifted to the economy” from nuclear weapons.

“There is too much group think that nothing has changed in the North,” he said. “There is something afoot, to which we need to pay attention.”

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